Monica picks up a wine bottle from the plastic carton and reads the label – ‘Chateau Saint Veran.’ She looks up at the house; bespoke window shutters, burglar alarm and double spiral Buxus topiaries by the front door. The beam from her mobile phone torch swathes the green glass in stark white light. Monica twists the bottle around to look for the tiny emblem of four arrows pointing anticlockwise around a circle on the bottom left side. Best to be certain that there’s a deposit, no point in carting the bottles around for nothing. The ten empty bottles of ‘Chateau Saint Veran’ chink party sounds against the others as she places them inside her box shaped ‘bag for life.’ Monica takes a pencil and her list out of the small pouch she carries around her middle and adds the house number to her notes on Rue des Tulipes: 23rd April 2020, number 22, ten bottles. For Monica, only harvests of ten and more deserve a mention.
Ten green bottles, Monica chuckles as she pads quietly up the street, opens the boot of her 1993 Ford Fiesta and places her pickings inside, taking care not to clatter the bottles. When the boot is full, she coasts the car twenty metres down the street in neutral. After all, Monica wouldn’t want to wake the neighbours.
It’s a dark but clear night, Venus and a full moon glow in the sky overhead. Monica takes an empty bag, closes the car door and scuttles across to number forty-three. When she sees the fox in the middle of the road she pauses; it freezes and stares. The fox is the size of a small dog. Their eyes lock. He loses interest and slopes off in the direction of the dustbins.
Monica pulls her silicone gloves up, tucks her mousy hair under her beanie and inspects the contents of the recycling box. ‘Macon Lugny,’ and ‘Pouilly Fumé,’ ‘Chablis Prestige 2018,’ – excellent taste and all bottled in Belgium by her favourite supermarket, meaning at least 30 cents deposit back each. She pushes the minor wine bottles aside or removes them to access the depths of the container. Eight bottles from number 44 clatter together in a chain reaction as Monica slots them inside her ‘bag for life.’ Number 52 is a beer drinker, Monica cannot abide that sort, it’s just not worth the effort, all those bottles for so little. She passes it over to rejoice at number 54’s over brimming recycling box; completes the bag and returns it to the car. She treads lightly in rubber soled sneakers. Her grey jacket and navy trousers are equally unobtrusive.
Yellow light suddenly spills out through the windowpanes. Monica blinks but the facade of the house is imprinted on her retina like a chess board. The curtain twitches. Monica scurries past.
Inside number 54, Claire hears the clinking of glass against glass. A light sleeper, her curiosity compels her to rush to the window and peek outside. Since her children left home and she retired from her teaching job, the outside world has taken on more than a passing interest. She sees a stranger pilfering from the recycling containers. The cheek of it. After observing for a few minutes, she realises that it’s a woman. There’s something strangely familiar about her gait. Poor thing, being driven to rummaging through others’ rubbish, she thinks. Wait. The woman is putting stuff into a Ford Fiesta loaded up with shopping bags. A car! Well really! Organised crime in Kraainem! Claire raps on the window.
A groaning noise breaks the silence,’ What are you doing?’ Claire’s husband mutters, ‘I’m trying to sleep.’ He turns over.
Smartphone in hand, Claire takes the stairs two at a time, grabs a coat, unbolts the front door and dashes out into the night. Thank goodness for those Zumba classes, she thinks. As the silver Ford Fiesta rolls past, Claire pushes the camera button, flash! Just in case, she takes a mental note of the registration plate: ‘SS0 203;’ and repeats the combination in her head until she grabs a pen in the hall and scribbles it on a stray car parking ticket.
Phew. So much effort, so early in the day. Claire sits at the dining table sipping filter coffee. She rubs her eyes and yawns. It’s one thing that a person in need is stealing bottles and claiming the deposits back, but in this case the act is pre-meditated and organised. That’s it, organised crime.
Meanwhile, in Rue des Roses, a block further on, Monica’s Ford Fiesta is packed to the roof with thirty-three bags each containing 12 bottles, plus the four extra loose bottles Monica picked up to round the figure up to 400. By Monica’s calculation, that makes 120 euros in deposit back. Some days she is tempted to carry on despite her lack of car space, hiding bottles in a ditch by the park to pick up later, but today she is tired and knows that the glass collection for the adjacent area is scheduled for tomorrow.
Back in the car, a flicker of headlights in the driving mirror causes Monica to sink low in her seat as a people carrier swishes past. Monica engages first gear and drives off, her face low on the steering wheel. She’s home in time for breakfast.
Inside number 54, Claire picks up the telephone and calls the local police station.
‘Hello, this is Claire Wrigley, of 54 Rue des Tulipes and I’d like to report a crime,’ she says.
‘Er… Hello Madam. What sort of crime are we talking about?’ The policeman replies.
‘At four o’clock this morning I saw a woman stealing bottles from the recycling bins on Rue des Tulipes.’
‘Bottles you say?’ comes the reply.
‘Yes. Are you taking note?’ Claire says.
‘Madame, technically speaking we’re not talking murder or aggravated violence in any form?
‘Well, no… but it’s theft, and I have the car registration number of the perpetrator,’ Claire interjects.
‘We’ll make a note and get back to you Mrs …. what did you say your name was?’ The policeman asks.
‘W-R-I-G-L-E-Y, 44 Rue des Tulipes,’ Claire’s dictation is interrupted by a dialling tone at the other end of the line.
‘Really!’ Claire slams the receiver down.
Claire lifts the calendar on the back of the kitchen door to check the recycling dates for the month of May. The next glass collection is Friday, 29th May. Five whole weeks away. Then she has an idea. On her laptop Claire consults the website of the waste disposal company. The glass pick-up day is Friday, 24th April for the neighbouring district of Wezembeek-Oppem – tomorrow.
Upon waking, Monica stretches her arms and legs out like a starfish, then sits up and shrugs her shoulders several times to loosen her joints. Out of habit she places her hand in the dent in the bed where Richard used to lie. Monica’s body aches from the constant bending down to place the bottles in the recycling machine of several supermarkets. Even now, the garage is so cluttered with bags and bottles that she leaves the car outside. One more mission this evening and then she can rest for a few weeks. Prior to leaving, she consults her notes and plans her trip, and fills the car with shopping bags.
Upon arrival in Wezembeek-Oppem, Monica parks at the top of Rue des Narcisses and starts at the odd numbers. Number 3 is prime real estate in deposit bottle terms; a strong, spicy ‘Saint Joseph 2019,’ – five times, followed by a full bodied ‘Saint Emilion,’ – tenfold. She doesn’t lock the car as she trudges up and down checking the plastic boxes and filling her bags. Monica places each bag of bottles in the car and walks from house to house checking boxes. As always, she gently lifts unwanted bottles out and places them on the pavement to be able to access any hidden treasures.
A car cruises past, its headlights shine full beam on Monica. She keeps her head down. As usual, Monica sets the car in neutral and allows it to roll further down the street. Suddenly a car cuts in front of Monica’s forcing her to slam her foot on the brake, she presses hard on the pedal, to no avail. She tries to steer away from impact, but the wheel won’t budge. It all happens in an instant. Monica’s Fiesta shunts into the Range Rover and comes to a halt. The sound of bottles rattling rings in Monica’s ears long after the car stops. She rubs her neck.
An urgent tap tapping on her window wakes Monica out of her trance. Due to the mist on the inside, she can’t see who it is and as the window is broken, she opens the door.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Monica steps out of the car.
‘I’m making a citizens’ arrest!’ Claire shouts.
Lights begin to flicker on and off in neighbouring houses, their glare filters out across the street illuminating both the women’s faces.
‘Claire?’ Monica says.
‘Monica?’ Claire says.
‘From Zumba?’ They both say at once.
‘Well I wouldn’t expect this from you?’ Claire says.
‘This? What is this?’ Monica looks up at Claire.
‘Stealing bottles from outside people’s homes.’ Claire prods Monica’s arm.
‘Well I wouldn’t expect you to pull in front of me like that, causing an accident!’ Monica replies.
‘We’ll see what the police have to say about it shall we?’ Claire pulls her smartphone out of her pocket.
A man’s voice cries out from a house, ‘Keep it down out there!’
‘It’s not what you think.’ Monica replies.
‘I know what it looks like.’ Claire looks down her nose at Monica.
‘Since Richard died my life has never been the same,’ Monica wipes a tear from her eye.
‘We all have our burdens to bear,’ Claire replies.
‘I collect the bottles with deposits that people can’t be bothered to return to the supermarket. Each bottle is worth 30 cents. It may not seem much but multiplied by hundreds every week…’ Monica says.
‘And bank the money no doubt!’ Claire says, starting to dial…
‘The money goes to the Belgian Cancer Foundation.’ Monica replies, ‘I can show you receipts.’
‘B-b-b-b….’ Claire stutters, ’I-I-I d-d-don’t know what to say.’ She touches Monica’s arm. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Look, you weren’t to know.’ Monica, ‘It’s not something I shout from the rooftops.’
‘But your car,’ Claire says. Both women turn to look at the concertinaed bonnet of the Fiesta.
‘That’s why we have insurance,’ Monica reaches inside the car to retrieve the papers.
Monica suddenly finds herself enveloped in an awkward embrace, her arms stretch out by her body, the papers in her hand flutter in the breeze.
‘So sorry,’ Claire crushes Monica’s slight body to her.
One month later. Early morning on Friday 29th May, Claire parks the Range Rover at the top of rue des Tulipes, she hands a ‘bag for life’ to Monica and keeps one for herself.
‘You’ll do the odd numbers?’ Monica asks as she steps out of the car.
‘And I’ll do the evens,’ Claire laughs.
Belgium based writer Sheila Kinsella’s short stories draw inspiration from her Irish upbringing. An avid watcher of people’s behaviour, and blessed with abundant natural curiosity, Sheila lures the reader into a shrewdly observed world via imagery and comedy. Her work has appeared in The Blue Nib Literary Magazine and the Brussels Writers’ Circle anthology ‘Circle 19.’
Image via Pixabay